Jiro Dreams of Sushi: Berlin Review

A light, appetizing culinary documentary that will attract most people except serious foodies.

BERLIN -- It’s torture to watch Jiro Dreams of Sushi — if you are on an empty stomach. David Gelb’s documentary on Jiro Ono, the 85-year-old sushi chef whose Tokyo restaurant received three Michelin stars is a paean to perfectionism and crafty bit of food porn.

The trendiness and general accessibility of the topic means tasty offers from TV, theater and festivals will be handed on a plate to the sales agent. Never mind that the cinematography is so glossy the film sometimes looks like a fashion shoot. Or that it serves philosophy in bite-size without delving into the background or evolving culture of eating and preparing sushi in the wake of culinary globalization (you’ll learn more from a-dime-a-dozen Japanese manga on the subject).

Shooting mostly in the 10-seater basement restaurant Sukiyayabashi Jiro (whose menu starts at around $300 minimum) in Ginza, the feature itself is largely squashed inside the chef’s small, meticulously routine world. Interviews with Jiro, his sons, his apprentices and food critics concur on his perfectionist attitude — not surprising if one is familiar with Japanese reverence for “shokunin” (artisan's) dedicated work ethic.

Still, the lengths Jiro takes to maintain and improve his standards — from never taking a day off except to go to funerals, to massaging an octopus for 50 minutes, to customizing plate layout for left-handed customers — have their amusement value. Conversations with his sons Yoshikazu and Takashi elicit sympathy for the pressure one would expect they’re under to sustain the restaurant’s reputation in the long term. The most touching anecdote comes from an apprentice’s account of how he wept when Jiro finally gave his approval to his egg dish after rejecting the previous 200 he made.

The sushi pieces are shot professionally and edited snazzily to look like a mouthwatering slide show. Filming quality of other locations or scenes such as Tsukiji fish market, streets of Tokyo or activity in the kitchen are merely functional. One interviewee has likened Jiro to the conductor of an orchestra in the way he controls the work flow. Perhaps this explains the choice of pieces by Glass, Richter, J.S. Bach and Mozart for the score. It’s soothing and appropriate, but when it’s so thickly laid over nearly every non-dialogue passage, the effect is as overwhelming as dipping already-vinegared raw mackerel in soya sauce.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival, Culinary Cinema
Sales: Fortissimo Films
Production: City Room Media, Weaver/Pellegrini, Preferred Content, in association with Sundial Pictures.
Featuring: Jiro Ono, Yoshikazu Ono, Takashi Ono, Masuhiro Yamamoto
Director-producer: David Gelb
Executive producers: Matthew Weaver, Joey Carey, Stefan Nowicki
Producer: Kevin Iwashina, Tom Pellegrini
Editor: Brandon Driscoll-Luttringer
No rating, 83 minutes